Northern Greece: what you don’t know can hurt you

Paxos

We were in Ioannina, in northwestern Greece. This was after four nights on Paxos, one of those Greek islands you see in photos that make you roll your eyes: surely nowhere is that beautiful, and if anywhere is, surely no one you know has been there. But Paxos is, and you do.

James Salter is reported to have said that “one of the functions of a writer is to create envy in the reader—envy of the life that the writer is living.” I happen not to agree with that at all, although I do see where he’s coming from at the level of descriptive prose: it should give the reader the feeling of a vicariousness so voluptuous that the reader experiences that delicious expansion of awareness, familiar to anyone who has been captivated by a book, of being here, reading, while also there, where the book is unfolding. Perhaps the reader’s envy, in Salter’s sense, lies in the space perceived between these two worlds, one real and one conjured.

By way of justifying going to a place like Paxos, with its crystal-blue Ionian waters, warm days and cool nights, and plum trees whose fruit you can reach right up and pick on your way up to your house—Greek Eden (there, envy, and that’s enough of that)—I would say that Heather and I have always wanted another crack at our honeymoon, which was rashly and perhaps over-ambitiously planned, frequently beset by complications, rerouting, and other difficulties. After seven years of marriage, we’re better at traveling together, and we might finally be getting the hang of how to honeymoon. Paxos is a good hang.

Another motivator when we travel is looking for alternative places to live. It’s not that we’re actively trying to move, but is there somewhere better than where we are? By “better” I would never mean anywhere like Paxos, which is only a place to visit. I might mean Ioannina, though. We did not go there on deliberate relocation recon—not even close; we barely knew anything about it before we visited—but because it seemed like the rightest stop-through after Paxos on the way to Istanbul, which was the next fixed itinerary dot we knew we had to connect to.

I did a small amount of online research about Ioannina (the accent is meant to go on the first “a”) before we went, i.e. I surfed the internet for about fifteen minutes. Ioannina is a university town, which is usually promising, and it’s on a sizable lake—nothing like the dimensions of, say, Lake Ohrid, but not anything you’d mistake for an oversized pond. Cities on bodies of water have especial appeal when you live in dry dirty Durham, whose lack of one (unless you count the creek-like Eno River, which is in any case well north of the city proper) gives our town a peculiar, nagging unease: a sense of sourcelessness, irrelevance, or impermanence that is difficult to describe. It’s an apprehension that there is nothing feeding us, no natural element we can trust to keep us alive in the moments when we fail ourselves. Perhaps the feeling is akin, mutatis mutandis, to Don DeLillo’s description of the out-of-the-way burg that is the setting of his novel White Noise: “Although we are for a small town remarkably free of resentment, the absence of a polestar metropolis leaves us feeling in our private moments a little lonely.”

Two hundred years ago, Ioannina was the power base of Ali Pasha Tepelena, the strongman whose complicated legacy I encountered throughout my tour of Albania in May and early June. He was alternately known as “The Lion of Ioannina,” where he literally made his name. (“Tepelena” is the epithet he inherited from the town where he was born, between Përmet and Gjirokastra in what’s now Albania.) Visiting Ioannina was a way of closing the loop, so to speak, on his former sphere of influence.

Ali Pasha Tepelena ruled under the authority of the Ottoman Empire, controlling its westernmost reach where it was hard for the Sublime Porte to keep a close eye on him. He gradually expanded his power and range, first with Ottoman support (he kept a lot of insurgents under control) and later on his own, taking Ioannina when he was nearly fifty. When he finally went too far, defying Istanbul, supporting Greek revolutionaries eager to throw off the Ottoman yoke, and playing the British and French off each other in order to gain foreign aid for his own aims at autonomy, the Ottoman Sultan issued a death warrant.

Ali Pasha Tepelena did not know he was a marked man. The Sultan deceived him by offering him an official pardon for his disobedient misdeeds, and Ali Pasha Tepelena went to the old monastery on an island in the middle of Ioannina’s lake in order to accept it. Instead, Ottoman soldiers broke in and shot him from the upper level above his chambers, right through the gappy floorboards, gravely wounding him. He was then beheaded, on the Sultan’s orders. The story of Ali Pasha Tepelena’s downfall, and especially of what became of his head, is retold in Ismail Kadare’s excellent historical novel, The Traitor’s Niche.

The monastery where Ali Pasha Tepelena died is now a museum. Heather and I visited it after a pleasant boat ride over the lake. You can look right through the exact spot in the floor where the bullets that killed him were fired from above. Ali Pasha Tepelena’s bejeweled rifle is on display here, along with copious memorabilia from his era. In another building on the grounds, you can watch a short, melodramatic movie depicting Greek women, guilty of nothing but association and desperation, hurled to their drowning deaths in the lake by evil Ottoman soldiers. There is also a cave in which members of the resistance hid out during World War II. The monastery grounds are otherwise very pleasant!

After visiting, while waiting for the return ferry, we tried the island’s specialty dish, lake eel (a disappointment; an outlay of euros I wish I had back). Back on the mainland, we walked inside the fortifications of the giant old castle, which is full of attractions, including a historic mosque that has been converted into an ethnographic museum whose exhibits are disproportionately weighted toward an extensive and, as always, tragic history of the city’s Jews. It was a surprise to discover this, as it had been a surprise to stumble, a couple of weeks earlier, on the Solomon Museum in Berat, Albania: a tiny one-room exhibition dedicated to the history of the town’s Jewish population. (I didn’t even know Berat had ever had a Jewish population—it’s nearly all gone now, anyway.) The Solomon Museum opened in 2018, as the ardent personal project of an elderly man who died less than a year after it opened. Its future is thus already doubtful—as the future of my people always has been, despite our insinuating persistence in the civilized world. After I finished writing that last sentence, I looked out the window of our Kazbegi hotel and saw a man in a yarmulke walking up and down the patio. Today is Friday, the Sabbath.

Ioannina was pleasant by day: leafy, compact, easygoing, and comfortable in its skin: perhaps a very nice place to live, if you had something to do there, but also a bit sleepy. Yet that night, also a Friday, Ioannina came alive: young people, old people, little children—everyone poured into the city center to crowd its open-air cafės and bars, and to walk up and down the pedestrianized streets and the promenade along the lake. It was one of the suddenly-liveliest scenes I’ve seen in ages, a total surprise, but perhaps it shouldn’t have been. Europe does public leisure so naturally, so ritually, and so much better than Americans do. We are a strange nation. We seem like gregarious people, but we really do not like to rub elbows with others, or “Others,” to use that old quasi-academic term, and it seems to me that this intractable social problem of ours is the source of many of our other ones, some of which are quite grave.

What to do about it? It’s hopeless, probably, but if I were King of Durham, which I sometimes think I’d like to be, I’d start by banning all cars from a three-block stretch of Main Street downtown and redo it in cobblestones or tobacco leaf-shaped pavers. The restaurants could spill out into the outdoors, shops could stay open until 11:00 on weekends, and the rest of the space could be filled in with food trucks. People would come from all over, even more, far more, than they do now. (I’d also salvage the unforgivable outrage that is the hideous and barely utilized new parking garage at Mangum and Morgan by turning the roof deck into a city park: instead of the High Line, in Chelsea, we’d have the Upper Deck. But I digress, again.)

Speaking of food trucks, we found one in Ioannina, called Vromiara. (Eating mostly on the cheap is one of the ways we’re affording this three-month trip.) The pork sandwich was fresh and very good, large enough to split, and with a big sharable beer it came to less than seven bucks. That was value enough, but it would be impossible to put a price on what we wound up getting for free from the chef, an affable and youngish fellow who’d have fit right into Durham’s highbrow-lowbrow culinary gestalt. Both nights we were in Ioannina, we got dinner from him; by the second night, we were chatty enough with him—because Americans are chatty, which is why our resistance to public exchange and recreation so perplexes and dismays me—to ask him where he suggested we go the next day.

It was after 9:00 pm and we had made no plans for the morning, except to leave Ioannina. But we didn’t know where we were bound. Heather and I frequently hang in the midair of travel decisions as long as possible, for better and worse. This is perhaps not the best approach to a honeymoon, or even a second honeymoon, but we are pretty instinctive improvisers (also for better and worse), and we don’t mind weighing all the options before we make plans; these assets, if they are assets, give us an extra measure of freedom of choice, and they allow us to change tacks when there something better appears, i.e. should we move away from Durham?

We had considered the following:

  • Heading onward to Thessaloniki, Greece’s second-largest city, which is directly on the route from Ioannina to Istanbul.
  • Going down to Athens, which is not on the way but which is, you know, Athens, from where it’s easy enough to get back up to Istanbul.
  • Seeing Mount Olympus, which might mean getting ourselves to a somewhat remote town the name of which I no longer remember.
  • The city of Larissa was also in play, for reasons that escape me: maybe I’d buy a t-shirt there and send it to my friend Larissa in Los Angeles?
  • We even discussed taking a long, long train ride just to spend a single day in Plovdiv, Bulgaria, which has a reputation as one of those hidden gems you’re supposed to visit before it gets discovered, i.e. it has already been discovered: it is one of Europe’s 2019 “Cultural Capitals.” (And I’m not sure how I would attempt to go about unpacking the implications of the mythology of “visit-it-before,” especially in light of my apology for tourism yesterday.)

Food truck chef recommended that we go to Meteora. “You could go play on the rocks,” he said. If you know what Meteora is, you will laugh when I tell you that this name meant nothing to Heather or me. Meteora, like meteor, like rocks you could play on? Or old ruins? If we were doing ruins again—we’d already been to Butrint, a famous archaeological park in southern Albania, just a week earlier—we would go (or have gone to) the revered but relatively overlooked ancient amphitheater site called Dodoni, not far from Ioannina, although it was A) surprisingly difficult to get to and B) back to the southwest, exactly the opposite direction from Istanbul.

We said goodbye to our new food truck pal and went back to our AirBnB apartment, where we kept drilling into the stubbornly resistant wall of options before us. There seemed to be something wrong with each one. At wit’s end, around midnight, I ran a search on this Meteora place and reported to Heather that it looked possibly pretty cool: monasteries built atop cliffs, something along those lines. And that’s when Heather immediately recognized what I was describing: the WORLD FAMOUS MONASTERIES OF METEORA! How did we not know we were only two hours away from the setting of the climactic climbing scene in that James Bond movie?

Heather quickly booked us a place to stay in the town outside Meteora, and we spent the entire next day hiking up and down the otherworldly pinnacle-shaped rock formations, between the medieval monasteries perched almost impossibly on their tops: as close as the living world gets to angels on the heads of pins. Meteora is a truly incredible place, inexplicable in mere words—or, frankly, in photos—and perhaps it is the only stop on our travels I might feel okay about making you a little envious of.

Meteora

The next day, we got on a bus that took us right by Mount Olympus—check—on the way to Thessaloniki, where we had half a day to kill before getting another, overnight bus to Istanbul. Unlike Meteora, Thessaloniki is anything but a tourist destination. We saw a fair portion of its attractions in five hours: perfectly pleasant, but we agreed that the best thing about the no-pretense, slightly ragged city, which we were not tempted to add to our list of potential places to move, was what it revealed in retrospect: that we had been unbelievably lucky in narrowly averting an absolutely disastrous, irremediable travel mistake, a honeymoon-level howler that would have bussed us right past one of the most iconic places in Greece, a Wonder of the World in all but name, which happened be two hours away from Ioannina, right on the route to Istanbul, and taken us instead to Thessaloniki. This would be like skipping Niagara Falls, because you didn’t know it was there, and pushing on to Buffalo instead. (Buffalo is actually surprisingly pleasant when it’s warm, but please.) We were saved from this ignominious error simply because we went to a food truck twice. To go back to where I started this post, what you don’t know can hurt you, very badly, and incurably. And to go even further back to the beginning of this travel (b)log, being clueless may be OK in Albania, but just because Ali Pasha Tepelena is still the man around here, we aren’t in Albania anymore, Toto.

Aristotle statue, Thessaloniki

Our overnight bus to Istanbul, a nice big comfortable cruiser, was virtually empty. The conductor welcomed the few passengers aboard at 10:00 pm by giving each of us a complimentary Dixie cup of Fanta orange soda, which sent me into uncontrollable fits of laughter that only Heather, my mother, and my sister will be able to correctly visualize and fully appreciate. I then slept for most of the ride, although everyone on board was awakened at around 3:00 a.m. when the bus reached the Greece-Turkey border, whereupon we were all pretty much forced into the strangest duty-free shop I will ever see—strange largely because of the hour of our visit. Buñuel or Godard would set a movie here. Half an hour later, we were through immigration and customs, and I fell asleep again as we crossed western Turkey.

We expected to arrive in Istanbul at about eight in the morning. So when the bus pulled into a shabby but surprisingly large terminal at about 6:30, and everyone was ordered to disembark, we were groggy and not quite ready to make our way into the enormous, dense nexus of history, Europe’s largest city, whose immense, old-Ottoman, center-of-the-world gravity was powerful enough to absorb almost anything or anyone and consign it to its proper niche of obscurity or infamy, whether Ali Pasha Tepelena’s head or a couple of American tourists who couldn’t tell Meteora from a box of rocks.

Vromiara food truck. Chef at right.

 

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